Teaching for Change Developing Rosenwald Teaching Guide

Teaching for Change has been invited by the Rosenwald filmmaker to develop a teaching guide for the documentary.

The little known history of Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund provides an excellent opportunity to explore a number of key themes in U.S. history including the purpose and funding of public education, the Great Migration, Red Summer, the politics of housing, philanthropy, and much more.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. magnate Julius Rosenwald was influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Emil Hirsch to become a philanthropist. He established the Rosenwald Fund to provide seed grants for more than 5,500 schools for rural African American children in southern states at a time when most were barred from public schools. From 1915 to 1932, 660,000 rural African-American students in the South attended Rosenwald funded schools. Those schools were also funded, staffed, and built by the local African-American community who were in effect double taxed—paying state taxes for public schools they could not attend and contributing a third or more of the funds for the Rosenwald Schools. Rosenwald also funded several of the first YMCAs for African-Americans, housing in Chicago, and fellowships to African-Americans including W. E. B. DuBois, Augusta Savage, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Jacob Lawrence.

Teaching for Change held two convenings with social justice teachers in the D.C. area to develop the themes for the teaching guide. Some of the teachers are drafting lessons, listed below.


Rosenwald School in Frankfort, KY in 1957.


1. Meet and Greet Key Historical Figures

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Rosenwald Fund awarded fellowships of $1500-$2000 to nearly 600 African American artists, musicians, writers, scientists, scholars, and educators. Many of the most significant cultural artifacts produced by African Americans in the 20th century were created by Rosenwald recipients, who include James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles Drew. In this lesson, each student reads a profile of one of the Rosenwald fellowship recipients, takes on the historical figure’s persona, and discusses their life’s challenges and accomplishments with other important African American figures played by their peers. (1 period)

2. The Many Purposes of Education

Although education has often been used as a mechanism of social control, the African American community has long celebrated the potential of education as means to liberation. In this lesson, students read and discuss a range of excerpts from key thinkers in the history of American education including W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and many more. Using the readings, small groups identify the goals of schooling that resonate most deeply with them and evaluate the schools they attend against these goals. Finally, students write proposals to school leaders with recommended changes to make their own learning experiences more powerful. (3 periods)

3. Education in the Rosenwald Schools

In the early 20th century, the Southern states severely underfunded African American schools. To address this injustice, the Rosenwald Fund provided seed money so that nearly 500 rural African American communities across 15 Southern states could build their own schools. In this lesson, students compare architectural plans and pictures of Rosenwald schools to the schools they attend. Students reflect on how the built environment impacts the curriculum, social interactions, and the learning experience. Students then work in groups to design their own dream schools that would meet their academic, social, and cultural needs. (2 periods)

4. The Mixed Blessings of Desegregation

In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that separate schools for Black and white children were inherently unequal, and therefore were unconstitutional. However, in the tumultuous struggle between those who championed and resisted integration, the needs of African American students and teachers were rarely prioritized. In this lesson, students analyze a number of primary and secondary sources about the educational experience of African Americans before and after Brown vs. Board of Education to prepare for a Socratic seminar discussing the harms and benefits of the efforts to desegregate schools. (2 periods)

5. The Great Migration

The Great Migration was a mass migration of over six million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West lasting from approximately 1910-1970. Although commonly described as a largely voluntary migration, the daily conditions of segregation, lynchings, disenfranchisement and an overall lack of opportunity made the journey a quest for survival. In this lesson, students analyze readings, film clips, maps, letters, photos, and artistic representations describing the lived experience of many migrant families. Students participate in an activity to evaluate the potential benefits and consequences of leaving their jobs, homes, and families for a new life in northern cities.  (3 periods)

6. Unequal Access to Housing in Chicago

Having migrated to northern cities, African Americans were subjected to another unjust housing system. Most were denied the opportunity to choose where to locate their family homes through discriminatory policies such as zoning laws, restrictive covenants, racially biased real estate policies, and threats of violence. In this lesson, students study maps showing patterns of segregated housing in Chicago from the early 20th century until now. Then students investigate the structured and sanctioned means the government and citizens used to establish and uphold residential segregation. Students view a clip of Rosenwald, evaluating the philanthropist’s attempts to address housing inequity through the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments. Finally students write a diary entry, creatively exploring the challenges to home ownership that African Americans faced. (3 periods)

7. Increased Access to Housing?

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act, which gave federal, state, and local governments unprecedented authority to shape residential life. One of the Housing Act’s main initiatives was “urban renewal,” a series of efforts to revitalize inner cities and some suburban communities across the United States. Despite increased federal funding for housing projects to serve Americans since the Great Depression, many poor Americans still reside in highly concentrated areas of substandard housing. In this lesson, small groups of students conduct mini-research projects on major government initiatives to address housing. The research is compiled and shared on a class timeline and students share observations, inferences, and questions about why the government policies have had little impact. Finally students draft a proposal for increasing socioeconomic and racial integration in a neighborhood in their city. (3 periods)

8. Rosenwald’s Philanthropy

Inspired by the social justice teachings of Rabbi Emil Hirsch, over his lifetime, Julius Rosenwald gave away the modern equivalent of nearly two billion dollars to a wide variety of innovative projects including the seed money to build nearly 5,000 schools for underserved African American students and nearly 600 fellowships for aspiring African American artists and writers. In this lesson, students compare their views of charity with the views of Maimonides, the great Jewish rabbi, who prioritized eight different levels of “Tzedakah,” translated as “justice.” Students explore the relationship between philanthropy and justice, by reading about contemporary celebrity philanthropists and comparing their efforts to Rosenwald’s philanthropy as portrayed in the film. Finally, students research and develop a philanthropic idea that addresses a social issue in their communities and “pitch” the idea to potential donors. (3 periods)

9. The Limits of Philanthropy

Although philanthropy can serve to provide vital services, sometimes philanthropy serves the needs of the benefactor more than the needs of the oppressed. In this lesson, students begin by listening to an NPR report on money given to recipients with no strings attached, and evaluate the effectiveness of this approach. Next, students read four quotes describing radically different approaches to addressing wealth disparity, and use the “silent conversation” protocol to discuss the merits of each. Students are assigned to the perspectives of various stakeholders in the Rosenwald school-building program. They view the film and analyze philanthropy through the lens of their historical group. (3 periods)

Posted Monday, June 20, 2016 |

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